The good husband of zebr.., p.15
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       The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, p.15
 

           Alexander McCall Smith
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  This was overstepping the mark. Mma Ramotswe did not like to speculate on the bedrooms, or beds, of others. That was private. “You mustn’t talk like that,” she said. “It is not funny.”

  “But you are smiling,” Mma Makutsi said. “I can see that you are trying not to smile, but you are.”

  Mma Ramotswe had changed the subject at this point, but at home that evening she had narrated the conversation to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and he had laughed. “Those two just can’t get on,” he said. “They are really the same, under the skin. In ten years’ time, Mma Makutsi will be just like her. She has been ordering the apprentices around—for practice. Soon she will move on to Mr Phuti Radiphuti. Once they are married, then the ordering about will begin.” He looked at Mma Ramotswe. “Not all men are fools, you know, Mma. We know the plans that you women have for us.”

  Oh, thought Mma Ramotswe, although she did not say oh. If Mr J.L.B. Matekoni thought that she had plans for him, then what exactly were they? There were undoubtedly women who had plans for their husbands; they were often ambitious for them in their jobs, and urged them to apply for promotion above the husbands of other women. Then there were women who liked their men to have expensive cars, to be wealthy, to dress in flashy clothes. But she had no plans of that nature for Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. She did not want Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors to get any bigger or to make more money. Nor did she want Mr J.L.B. Matekoni to change in any way; she liked him exactly as he was, with his old, stained veldschoen, his overalls, his kind face, his gentle manner. No, if she had any plan for him it was that they would continue to live together in the house on Zebra Drive, that they would grow old in one another’s company, and maybe one day go back to Mochudi and sit in the sun there, watching other people do things, but doing nothing themselves. Those were plans of a sort, she supposed, but surely they were plans that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni would himself endorse.

  Now, driving her tiny white van along the road that led to the Gaborone dam, she let her thoughts wander: Mma Potokwane, men and their little ways, the Government, next year’s rains, Motholeli’s homework problems: there was so much to think about, even before she started to dwell upon any of her cases. Once she started to think about that side of her life, Mochudi Hospital came to mind, with its cool corridors, and the ward where three people had died, all in the same bed. Three fingers raised, one after the other, and then lowered. Three stitches taken out of our shared blanket. She had talked to how many people now? Four, if one did not count Tati Monyena, who was really the client, even if it was the hospital administration that was paying. Those four people, the three nurses and Dr Cronje, had all endorsed the view that Tati Monyena had voiced right at the beginning—that the deaths were just an extraordinary coincidence. But if that was what everybody believed, then why had they sought to involve her in the whole business? Perhaps it was one of those cases where doubts simply refused to lie down until somebody independent, somebody from the outside, had come and put them to rest. So she was not a detective, then, but a judge brought in to make a ruling, as judges, chiefs, will do when with a few carefully chosen words they bury a cause of conflict or doubt. If that were so, then there was not much for her to do but to declare that she had looked into the situation and found nothing suspicious.

  And yet she was not sure if she could honestly say that. It was true that she had looked into the situation, and while she had been unable to come up with any idea as to why the patients had died, she could not truthfully say that she had no suspicions. In fact, she had felt quite uncomfortable after her conversations with the nurses and with Dr Cronje; she had sensed an awkwardness, an unhappiness. Of course, that could have been nothing to do with the matter she was investigating—Dr Cronje was an unhappy man because he was in self-imposed exile; and as for the nurses, for all she knew they might have some cause for resentment, some work issue, some unresolved humiliation that gnawed away; such things were common and could consume every waking moment of those who allowed them to do so.

  She reached the point at which the public road, untarred and dusty, a track really, entered the confines of the dam area. Now the road turned to the east and followed the base of the dam wall until it swung round in the direction of the Notwane River and Otse beyond. It was a rough road, scraped flat now and then by the Water Department grader but given to potholes and corrugated ridges. She did not push the tiny white van on such roads, and stuck to a steady fifteen miles per hour, which would give her time to stop should she see too deep a hole in the road or should some wild animal dash out of cover and run across her path. And there were many animals here; she spotted a large kudu bull standing under an acacia tree, its horns spiralling up a good four feet. She saw duiker too, and a family of warthogs scuttling off into the inadequate cover of the sparse thorn bush. There were dassies, rock hyrax, surprised in the open and running frantically for the shelter of their familiar rocks; as a girl, she had possessed a kaross made of the skins of these small creatures sewn together end to end, little patches of silky-smooth fur that had been draped across her sleeping mat and into which she had snuggled on cold nights. She wondered where that kaross was now; worn to the very leather, perhaps, abandoned, surviving as a few scraps of something, traces of a childhood which was so long ago.

  Halfway along the dam, the road opened out onto a large clearing where somebody, a few years earlier, had tried to set up a public picnic ground. The attempt had been abandoned, but the signs of the effort were still there—a small breeze-block structure with Ladies painted on one end and Gentlemen on the other, the lettering still just discernible; now, with the roof off and half the walls down, the two sexes were jumbled up together in democratic ruin. And beyond that, over a token wall, now toppling over in places and never more than a couple of feet high, was a children’s playground. The ants had eaten the wooden support posts of the swings and these had fallen and been encased in crumbling termite casts; a piece of flat metal, which could have been the surface of a slide, lay rusted in a clump of blackjack weeds; there was an old braaivleis site, now just a pile of broken bricks, picked clean by human scavengers of anything that could be used to make a shack somewhere.

  Mma Ramotswe arrived half an hour early, and after she had found a shady spot for the van, she decided to walk down to the edge of the water, some fifty yards away. It was very peaceful. Above her was an empty sky; endowed with so much room, so much light; on the other side of the dam, set back a bit, was Kgale Hill, rock upon rock. You could see the town on the other side of the wall, and you knew it was there, but if you turned your head the other way there was just Africa, or that bit of it, of acacia trees like small umbrellas, and dry grass, and red-brown earth, and termite mounds like miniature Babel towers. Paths led criss-cross to nowhere very much; paths created by the movement of game to the water, and she followed one of these down towards the edge of the dam. The water was light green, mirror flat, becoming blue in its further reaches. Reeds grew at its edge, not in clumps, but sparsely, individual needles projecting from the surface of the water.

  Mma Ramotswe was cautious. There were crocodiles in the Notwane—everybody knew that—and they would be in the dam too, although some people denied it. But of course they would be here, because crocodiles could travel long distances over land, with that ungainly walk of theirs, seeking out fresh bodies of water. If they were in the Notwane, then they would be here too, waiting beneath the water, just at the edge, where an incautious warthog or duiker might venture. And then the crocodile would lunge out and seize its prey and drag it back into deeper water. And after that followed the roll, the twisting and churning, when the crocodile turned its prey round and round under water. That was how the end came, they said, if one was unfortunate enough to be taken by a crocodile.

  There had been a bad crocodile attack at the end of the last rainy season, on the Limpopo, and Mma Ramotswe had discussed it with Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. He had known the victim, who was a friend of a cousin of his, a man who had a small farm up on the b
anks of the river and who had crossed the water in his boat to drive some cattle back. The cattle had somehow managed to cross the river to the wrong bank, onto somebody else’s land, in spite of the fact that the water was high.

  The Limpopo was not very wide at that point, but the central channel was deep, a place for a predator. The man was halfway across, seated in his boat with its small outboard motor, when a large crocodile had reared up out of the water and snatched him by the shoulder, dragging him into the river. The herd boy, who was with him in the boat, watched as it happened. At first he was not believed, as crocodiles very rarely attacked a boat, but he stuck to the story. They found what remained of the farmer eventually, and the herd boy was shown to be right.

  She looked at the water. It was easy for a crocodile to conceal itself close to the edge, where there were rocks, clumps of half-submerged vegetation and lumps of mud breaking the surface. Any one of these could be the tip of a crocodile’s snout, protruding from the water just enough to allow him to breathe; and, a short way away, two further tiny islands of mud were really his eyes, fixed on potential prey, watching. We are so used to being the predator, thought Mma Ramotswe. We are the ones to be feared, but here, at the edge of our natural element, were those who preyed on us.

  Further out, a kingfisher hovered and then plummeted, stone-like, into the water; a splash of white spray, and then up again to a vantage point in the air. She watched this for a few moments, and smiled. Everything has its place, she thought; everything. And then she turned round and made her way slowly back up the track towards the van, to await the arrival of Mma Potokwane and the children. She thought she could hear an engine now, straining somewhere not too far away. That would be one of the orphan farm’s minibuses, nursed and kept alive by Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, officially retired by Derek James, who ran the orphan farm office, and replaced with something newer, but brought back by Mma Potokwane, who could not bear to waste anything. The old minibuses were now used for work like this, since Mma Potokwane did not like the thought of the newer vehicles destroying their suspension on these bumpy roads.

  There were two familiar old blue minibuses. The first one, driven somewhat erratically by Mma Potokwane, drew up close to where Mma Ramotswe was standing and the matron herself got out. She opened the rear door and a chattering group of children spilled forth.

  Mma Ramotswe made a quick mental count. There had been nineteen children in a vehicle made for twelve.

  Mma Potokwane guessed Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts. “It was perfectly all right,” she said. “Children are smaller. There’s always room for one or two more children.” She turned and clapped her hands. “Now, children, nobody is to go in the water. Play up here. Look, there used to be some swings over there. And a slide. So there’s lots to do.”

  “Be careful of crocodiles,” warned Mma Ramotswe. “You don’t want to be eaten.”

  A small boy with wide eyes looked up at Mma Ramotswe. “Would a crocodile eat me, Mma?” he asked politely. “Even me?”

  Mma Ramotswe smiled. Even me. None of us thinks that we will be eaten; no child thinks that he will die. “Only if you weren’t careful,” she said. “Careful boys are never eaten by crocodiles. That is well known.” As she spoke, she realised that this was not true: that farmer had been careful. But children could not be told the unvarnished truth.

  “I’ll be careful, Mma.”

  “Good.”

  Mma Potokwane had brought two of the housemothers with them, as well as a couple of volunteers from Maru-a-Pula School. The children flocked round the teenage volunteers while the housemothers set out the picnic on small trestle tables. Mma Potokwane and Mma Ramotswe found a small section of wall, shaded by a tree, and sat down on that.

  Mma Potokwane drew a deep breath. “I am always happy when I am in the bush,” she said. “I think everybody is.”

  “I certainly am,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I live in a town, but I do not think my heart lives there.”

  “Our stomachs live in towns,” said Mma Potokwane, patting the front of her dress. “That is where the work is. Our stomachs know that. But our hearts are usually somewhere else.”

  They were silent for a while. Above them, in the branches of the acacia, a small bird hopped from twig to twig. Mma Ramotswe watched the children exploring the abandoned playground. Two boys were kicking at the fallen swing posts, causing the dried mud of the termites’ activity to puff up in little clouds of dust.

  She pointed to the boys. “Why do boys destroy things?”

  Mma Potokwane sighed. “That is just what they do,” she said. “When I first started to work with children, years ago, I used to ask myself questions like that. But then I realised that there was no point. Boys are the way they are and girls are the way we are. You might as well ask why those dassies sit on the top of rocks. That’s just the way they are.”

  It was true, thought Mma Ramotswe. She liked doing the things that she liked doing, and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was the same. She watched the children. “They seem very happy,” she said.

  “They are,” she said. “Most of them have had a bad start. Now things are going well for them. They know that we love them. That is all they need to know.” She paused, and looked out over the water. “In fact, Mma Ramotswe, that’s really all that a child needs to know—to know that it is loved. That is all.”

  Again, thought Mma Ramotswe, that was true.

  “And if there’s bad behaviour,” Mma Potokwane went on. “If there’s bad behaviour, the quickest way of stopping it is to give more love. That always works, you know. People say that we must punish when there is wrongdoing, but if you punish you’re only punishing yourself. And what’s the point of that?”

  “Love,” mused Mma Ramotswe; such a small, powerful word.

  Mma Potokwane’s stomach grumbled. “We must eat very soon. But, yes, love is the answer, Mma. Let me tell you about something that happened at the orphan farm. We had a child who was stealing from the food cupboard. Everybody knew that. The housemother in charge of that cupboard had seen the child do it. The other children knew.

  “We talked to the child and told him that what he was doing was wrong. But still the stealing went on. And so we tried something different. We put a lock on the cupboard.”

  Mma Ramotswe laughed. “That seems reasonable enough, Mma.”

  “You may laugh,” said Mma Potokwane. “But then let me tell you what we did next. We gave the key to that child. All the children have little tasks that they must do. We put that boy in charge of the cupboard.”

  “And?”

  “And that stopped the stealing. Trust did it. We trusted him, and he knew it. So he stopped stealing. That was the end of the stealing.”

  Mma Ramotswe was thinking. At the back of her mind there was something that she thought she might say to Mma Makutsi about this. But her thoughts were interrupted by one of the house-mothers bringing them a large tin plate on which several pieces of fruit cake had been laid, along with a number of syrup sandwiches. The housemother handed the plate to Mma Ramotswe and went back to the children.

  Mma Potokwane glanced at her friend. “I think that is for both of us, Mma,” she said anxiously.

  “Of course,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Of course.”

  They ate in silence, and contentment. The children, their mouths filled with syrup sandwiches, were quiet now, and again they could hear the birds.

  “What we are trying to do with these children,” said Mma Potokwane suddenly, “is to give them good things to remember. We want to make so many good memories for them that the bad ones are pushed into a corner and forgotten.”

  “That is very good,” said Mma Ramotswe.

  Mma Potokwane licked a small trace of syrup off a finger. “Yes,” she said. “And what about you, Mma Ramotswe? What are your favourite memories? Do you have any that are very special?”

  Mma Ramotswe did not have to think about that. “My Daddy,” she said. “He was a good man, and I remember him. I remember walking
with him along a road—I don’t remember where it was—but I remember how we did not have to talk to one another, we just walked together, and were perfectly happy. And then … and then …”

  “Yes?”

  She was uncertain if she should tell Mma Potokwane about this, but she was her old friend, and she did. “Then there’s another memory. I remember Mr J.L.B. Matekoni asking me to marry him. One evening at Zebra Drive. He had just finished fixing my van and he asked me to marry him. It was almost dark, but not quite. You know that time of the evening? That is when he asked me.”

  Mma Potokwane listened gravely to the confidence. She would reciprocate, she thought.

  “Funny,” she said. “I think it was the other way round with me. I asked my husband. In fact, it was definitely me. I was the one.”

  Mma Ramotswe, recalling her discussion with Mma Makutsi, suppressed a smile. That’s two things I need to tell her, she said to herself.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  A SHORT CHAPTER ABOUT TEA

  THE TEA REGIME at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was, by any standard, a liberal one. There was no official slot for the first cup of tea, but it was nonetheless almost always brewed at the same time, which suggested that it had a de jure slot in the day. This was at eight o’clock, when work had already been going on for half an hour or so—in theory at least—although Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi often only arrived a few minutes before eight. The turning on of the kettle had become part of the ritual of opening the office for the day, alongside the moving of the client’s chair away from the corner where it was placed at night and its positioning back into the middle of the floor, where it faced Mma Ramotswe’s desk, ready for use. Then the window was opened the correct amount, and the doorstop put in such a position that it would allow for some circulation of air without admitting too much noise from the garage, a finely judged calculation which Mma Ramotswe herself undertook. After this there was a brief period for the exchange of information between Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi—what Phuti Radiphuti had eaten for dinner the previous night, what Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had said about the bed he had dug for his beans, what Radio Botswana had announced on its early morning broadcasts, and so on. Once these snippets had been shared, the electric kettle would be boiling and the first, unofficial cup of tea would be served.

 
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